Stop the Noiz

Software Should Come with a Fresh Date

Frank Fox - 2009.01.09 - Tip Jar

I'm one of those people who hate to throw away anything that's still good. If there is no mold or bad smell, I figure it's still is good to eat.

The problem with software is that it can't mold, and any smell is probably something wrong with your computer, not the software. It can be hard to tell that your software has expired until one day it suddenly stops working.

The problem is that software "not working" is simply too vague. Software has always been prone to bugs and strange behavior. All it takes is a single typo, a bad subroutine, or a buffer overflow, and suddenly things aren't working properly. The stars align, and you are having your worst day of the year.

Fixing Broken Software

I usually try to fix broken software by reinstalling, clearing out junk files, updating my version, etc. But sometimes the problem is directly related to updating the operating system or another really important application.

Now you have a choice: Downgrade your system for this one piece of software or do without it. In effect, your software has expired.

There is no warning when the software you own is going to expire. Wouldn't it be helpful if the software you bought came with the following warning:

Warning: This product has been optimized to work with version X.XX of your operating system. We plan to support this version for the next two releases and software patches. After that, you are going to be required to repurchase this software to work with any new updates to your operating system.

Stating anything less is misleading. You had plenty of other applications that survived the update process, so why did this one fail while others didn't? And with no warning or statement of future support, how are you supposed to know how long the software should work?

If I had known that the software was going to expire after just one OS release, I might have held off on the purchase or bought someone else's product. for me, repurchasing software has generally been a big loss. Often the original functionality was all I needed. I see updates as fixes for the errors the developer left in the code; I seldom upgrade for any of the new features. They are mostly nice extras, not critical features.

The truth, it seems, is that software is only good for the day you purchased it. Support for any future problems is up to the software vendor. The length of support is often arbitrary. Occasionally, following an unwritten rule, it should last for one year. Before that time you may get the next version for a reduced price or, if you are lucky, free.

Software Maintenance Contracts

The worst compromise - but sometimes the only guarantee - is the dreaded software maintenance contract. It sounds nice. Pay a "small fee" and you get any upgrades and patches for a fixed period of time.

That's great - until you look into the fine print: These maintenance contracts treat your software as a service, and they can force you to upgrade even if you don't want to.

Say you have an office with both old and new computers. The old computers don't run the latest version of the program very well, so you may want to keep using the old version on these machines, but can you?

An example I ran into was with the network version of ACAD 2009. The oldest version you are allowed to install on the server is two releases back (ACAD 2007). If these old computers were using ACAD 2004 just fine but can't handle ACAD 2007, you find yourself having to upgrade or replace computers that are perfectly adequate with their currently installed software. Either upgrade or require the new computers stick with using the older software.

The software maintenance agreement wasn't saving any money on that deal.

The bottom line is that all hardware and software decisions are linked together by the secret software expiration date that no one wants to admit to. Software is going to expire, you just don't know when. It may happen after an update to your operating system or after you buy a new computer and are still using the current operating system.

Protect Yourself

The best defense is to find what works and stick with it as long as possible. Treat any update as a threat to your computer's stability. Install updates with a plan to roll back the changes if they don't work. If there isn't a security risk or a major benefit, skip a release or two. Read up on other people's problems before you run the update.

If you can, run a systems diagnostic before installing any updates. Nothing drives you crazier than a hard drive failure that happens just after a software update. The two were probably not related, but you only see them as cause and effect. The most reliable computers are the ones maintained but not necessarily upgraded.

If you want to stay with the newest operating system or the fastest computer, be prepared to repurchase a certain amount of software with every upgrade. A new computer gives you greater freedom to run the latest resource hungry software, but there are no guarantees that the old software you were happy with will continue to work.

If you are like me, you keep an old computer around just in case. Old laptops are my preferred fallback. They are small and self-contained. Except for the battery eventually going bad, they won't spoil just sitting on a shelf. Best of all, old laptops cost only a fraction as much as new ones.

Good luck keeping all your old software working. If you ever run into trouble, just hop over to eBay and buy that laptop you wanted five years ago. You can afford it now, and you have a good excuse for buying it.

If you are like me, you'll be coming back to Low End Mac to look through all the Mac profiles to decide which model will give you the best performance for that old software you want to keep using. Go ahead and have a look - all the models are listed. I'm sure you'll find one that fits your needs perfectly, and you'll save a bundle buying used. LEM

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